September 2010

Marcia Ferranto: Moving WTS Forward by Focusing on Membership

by Janna Starcic, Executive Editor

Marcia Ferranto wants to make one thing clear: the "transportation" in Women's Transportation Seminar (WTS) goes beyond rail. "It's about all types of transportation," she says, adding that it includes aviation, aerospace, maritime and transit. Ferranto, president/CEO of WTS International, who took over the post in February, was born in Kansas City, Mo., and grew up in Wyomissing, Pa. After receiving her bachelor's degree in accounting, she started her own payroll business, which ultimately served customers in 26 states.

After she sold the business, Ferranto realized she wanted to "wake up for more than the bottom line" and get involved with an organization that is making a difference in the world. This led her to work for nonprofits including the Delaware Art Museum, which went from having a $2.5 million operating budget to a $4.5 million operating budget under her tenure as CFO. Ferranto most recently served as the executive director of the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation in Delaware, where she built and balanced its annual operating budget by developing a successful program of pursuing new funding, grants and donations.

Despite still being new to the industry and her position, the WTS has already achieved a major milestone with the signing of an agreement with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to help bolster the role of women in the transportation industry. To help counter an anticipated shortage of skilled transportation workers, the agreement was signed to encourage women to complete undergraduate and graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) — while pursuing careers in transportation. The signing took place in May at WTS' Annual Conference in Washington, D.C.

Secretary LaHood said the need for environmental engineers and technicians is expected to rise by 30 percent over the next decade. The Department of Labor reported, in 2008, that less than 6 percent of employed women worked in transportation and only 10 percent of all civil engineers in the U.S. are women.

Utilizing its network of 45 chapters and more than 4,000 transportation professionals, WTS will work with the U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) to organize a series of outreach sessions in 2010 and 2011 throughout the U.S. Sessions will focus on workforce development as it relates to STEM, with specific attention given to attracting and retaining a highly qualified, diverse and technically advanced workforce for the future.

METRO Magazine Executive Editor Janna Starcic spoke with Ferranto about that momentous occasion back in May as well as what her vision is for the women's organization going forward.

METRO: Tell me how you came to head up the WTS?

Ferranto: When I took the interview, I still had to be sold on 'Is there really a need to advance women in transportation?' Remember, I'm coming from the museum industry, which has a lot of women — I'm thinking how many women do they really need? When I walked out of the interview, I had a vision in my soul that said 'I want to work for this organization. They are doing some incredible things.' The rest is history.

Did you feel you needed to have a transportation background?

 I think I was the only person being interviewed that did not have a transportation background. Luckily I surround myself with 4,000 members who do. But what they were focused on, and I have to say I think it was the right thing, was that they don't need a transportation professional — they need someone who knows how to grow an organization; knows how to work a nonprofit; knows how to make a strategic plan; knows how to work with a board and knows how to move an organization forward. They didn't need someone who understood policy, they needed someone who understood associations of nonprofits and how to build a membership, and most transportation people don't know how to build membership.

I think it was an 'a ha!' moment for them. They came back and said, 'it's our duty as a board of directors to build an association, and we need a professional to come in and do that.'

Where does the name come from?

It's called Women's Transportation Seminar because it was formed in 1977 when women were not allowed to leave work unless they were going to a seminar. Here, they were forming this networking group, to advance women and support women, but if their companies had heard about that, it would have been 'No, we won't support it, we won't pay for it, nothing.' But if they were going to a seminar, that was a different thing — hence the word seminar in the name. It's a great story and it should never be lost, it's important. It's where women were in 1977, and we should be mindful of that, but that's not the name that is going to take us forward beyond 2010.

I understand that the story is important and we do not want to lose the history, but I do think that WTS is in great need of a re-branding. As soon as you have to explain [the name] to somebody, you've lost the meaning. How do you join a group when you don't even know what it means? That's part of my vision for the future.

How will the WTS vision impact the transportation industry?

For us as an association, to impact the transportation industry, which we hope we will, we will do that through numbers. Our membership needs to grow from 4,000 to 10 times that. Should we have an impact on transportation? Absolutely! How does an association have an impact on their industry? By growing their membership.

From what I understand, there has not been a lot of effort in membership in the past. We've hired someone — her title is membership and chapter relations manager — her job specifically will be to increase membership. We are, for the first time, holding an additional membership drive in November. And we are reaching out to current members, past members, and potential members throughout the entire country through our chapters.

what was one of the first tasks you took on?

When I first started in February, I went on a 90-day listening tour and I went to visit 10 chapters and a half a dozen corporate sponsors, and all I did was listen for 90 days. That experience was very valuable. If I was ever to stand in front of a group of upcoming CEOs, I would strongly recommend that they do the same tour.


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